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My great passion is 'Countdown': it proves, Zen-like, that in life there is no right answer
Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter, Philip Hensher was among Granta 20 Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. The author of six novels, a collection of short stories and an opera libretto, he has won numerous prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award and the Stonewall Journalist of the Year. His 2008 novel, 'The Northern Clemency', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Commonwealth Prize. A regular presence in the British media, alongside his Wednesday column for The Independent, he writes for The Spectator and Mail on Sunday.
Friday 21 May 1999
No, it probably isn't, I had to agree. "General knowledge" used to exist as a single entity 20 years ago. Now, it seems to be disappearing. What is taking its place is a knowledge which is fragmented and individual. It's a bit frightening; it looks a lot like ignorance.
One of the nice things about the writer's life is that you get to develop an intimate acquaintance with daytime TV. Years ago, whenever I was off school with a borderline cold, I always tried to stretch it till Thursday to discover how this week's Crown Court worked out. And now - God, the joy of it - I don't even have to drink Lucozade to put the telly on at eleven o'clock in the morning.
I understand that the programmes are better in the evenings, when most people look at it - or at any rate different. But why would anyone want anything better? The cheap shows working a makeover on anything from a mother of four to a chipboard trolley? That weird, laborious antiques show on Channel 5 where people swap their old tat for Channel 5's? The mesmerising adverts for more and more elaborate devices to enable the elderly to get in and out of the bath? Who could ask for anything more?
My great passion is Countdown, that inspiring, almost Zen-like witness to the fact that, in our lives, there is no right answer; you are given a jumble of letters, and do as best you can with them; you grow up, discover yourself to be Richard Whiteley, and do as best you can with that. Inspiring, as I say, but before Countdown is a much grimmer programme, 15-to-1. It is a general knowledge quiz; there is a right answer, which the glittering and menacing quiz-master holds, and wrong answers, one of which the contestants generally choose.
It's normally quite a dull affair. But what has made it rather interesting in the last couple of weeks is that it has turned its attention to sixth- formers, competing on behalf of their school. The questions are relentlessly Top of the Form: a few capitals of American states, a few semi-trick questions ("What is the chemical formula for ice?"), a few embarrassing-uncle questions about Kula Shaker and the Teletubbies.
But, my God, the things they don't know. Someone had no idea, couldn't even venture a name for the composer of Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte. Another thought, with every appearance of confidence, that the wife of William IV was Queen Victoria. A whole team had never heard of Lech Walesa, or Solidarity. I know, I know; it's a very stressful experience, and they are very young, after all, and it's more than likely that if William G Stewart shone a bright light in my eyes and asked me what the key of the Eroica symphony was, I would goggle gormlessly and then say "scorbutic acid", as the nation laughed. But there is a sense that general knowledge is ceasing to exist, that we all know different things.
One of the reasons is that we have lost confidence in the idea of a shared culture. There is a slightly uncomfortable aspect, these days, to watching a quizmaster ask a girl of Indian descent about Chaucer, knowing that he is not going to ask her neighbour who commissioned the Padshahnama.
All the same, that is a criticism of a particular notion of "general knowledge", and not of the concept of a loose, but shared, body of facts. It moves on from time to time, the terracotta warriors of the ancient Chinese registering on the communal mind, the arguments and analyses of CP Snow turning, almost overnight, into a specialised interest. We can argue, of course, about what "general knowledge" consists of, here and now - Solidarity but probably not La Lotta Continua - but about its value in general there ought to be no argument.
It looks a trivial exercise, but I don't think it is. I suspect that almost all intelligent people are pretty good at general knowledge. The retention and retrieval of cultural trivia is probably a fairly reliable guide to someone's general curiosity. Of course, there are occasional freaks who have no interest in anything outside set theory, but they are rarities. Me, if I were the admissions tutor for a university, I wouldn't bother interviewing; I'd just have a huge round of 15-to-1. And I certainly wouldn't let in the poor sap who thought Portugal was one of the Balearic Islands.
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